Friday, December 3, 2010


This week's presentation on Actor Network Theory really helped clarify the concepts from the reading, as well as the way I think about ANT. In round two with ANT, I feel I already have a better understanding of it and I think it is an interesting approach to social-technological interactions. There always seems to be a debate surrounding social determinism VS technological determinism - which one is right, which one is stronger, which is leading which, etc.

I like how ANT accounts for a new way of thinking about this dichotomy. It describes how humans and non humans can function as eqauls in networks, working toward a particular goal. In my opinion, this is pretty much how product development goes today. So much of what we do everyday is equally bound in social/techno practices. The demonstration in class of songsmith, just shows how AI is being used efficiently more and more - also, it's used in a lot of manufacturing processes and data collection. We wouldn`t be where we are today socially, without the technology; likewise, the technology wouldn`t exist if we weren`t coming up with new ways to use it and develop it as a result of our social nature. When I think back to the history of communication technologies, this social-technological relationship becomes really clear. For instance, the telephone was a piece of technology, adapted from preceding ideas such as the telegraph and originally it was used by the Bell company for business purposes only. Women at home and families turned the telephone into what it is today because of the way they transformed its use for social purposes. Examples like this might not occur as often today, but it is undoubtedly true that without a social interaction, technology would not exist as it does today, and vice versa for society.

The article describes this relationship as "mutually constitutive". This perspective helps take our focus away from a simply technological or social determinist view on the world. I enjoyed thinking about ANT because it helps bring to light the complex relationship between the two factors. Since I've been introduced to ANT in this course, I think it applies to socio-technological development much more appropriately than tech determinism (a perspective that a lot of young MIT students have). ANT is a more accurate reflections of the realities of our interactions with technology every day.

The other article for this week, "Resisting Surveillance: Identity and Implantable Microchips" by Nisbet, also challenges common perspectives on technology, RFID in particular. I thought Nisbet's museum intallment was very clever to create awareness in people about RFID technology and what it is capable of in social contexts. The focus on how to subvert this technology was key, and goes back to ANT because Nisbet is changing the network created by the interactions between actors, humans and RFID. Nisbet implanted two chips in her hand instead of one. This messes up the network because for tracking data to be meaingful, the RFID must only be associated to one particular thing. In this case, Nisbet is adding a new actor to the context, and in doing so she disrupts the meaning of data as two data flows are created for her singular physical identity. However, she's still being tracked so even though she's distorting the information - she's still contributing to it.

On the positive side, RFID technology can undoubtedly be useful in a lot of ways. I love the idea of having some of my important personal belonging (keys, cell phone, etc) being chipped so I can find them when they're lost. I also like the idea if chipping luggage in airports so it can be continuously tracked and never lost. Nevertheless, when a technology like this has useful pusposes, it is easier to accept its use - and it seems that this will make it easier to implement it in more invasive ways. I can see companies/government attempting to justify tracking humans for some type of supposed benefit, convenience, or safety measure - and because people are familiar with the technology in harmless contexts, I think they would be less likely to protest the use of the same technology on themselves.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Parks' "Planet Patrol"

In "Planet Patrol" Lisa Parks explores the use (and misuse) of satellite imaging and how practices such as anchoring can be used to manipulate interpretations of images.

A key point about the perception of satellite images lies in the knowledge of the person analyzing the image in comparison to the knowledge of onlookers. The history that surrounds the use of satellite images gives them some type of prestige and authority because they are something that only the government usually has access to, and they are typically used in contexts of national security. But as Parks points out, the satellite image is only an approximation of an event - not the real thing.

The ambiguity between what the images actually are and what they can be portrayed as is problematic. Because the public is less familiar with satellite imaging, the public can be easily deceived by anyone of authority who interprets the image for them. As the example with Powell showed - the less people know, and the less clear and precise the strategy or explanation, the easier it is to manipulate their perception successfully. This ambiguity allows for what`s referred to in the article as a "strategy of deception".

Rebecca's presentation did a great job of explaining how anchoring of images is done and also how it can manipulate perception. It's not just about the photo, and it's not just about the person's perception - a photo must be prescribed with something to be convincing or manipulative. Whether it's tabloids, advertisements, or even a photo caption in a magazine - when something is added to a photo that supposedly gives context, it totally changes a person's interpretation of what it is - whether the given context is true or not, it provokes certain thoughts.

While this article discusses anchoring specifically in relation to satellite images, the same types of techniques are applied to events and people in public relations to shape public opinion. A lot of public relations is about establishing lines of control so that the public gets their information from one "trusted" source. Making sure that people don't get the information from other sources is key to successful persuasion and key to maintain that ambiguity to allow for the strategy of deception. I think that lines of control were key to the anchoring of the satellite images as well. The public couldn't obtain those images for themselves, and nobody had seen them before - so everyone was relying on Powell's interpretation. Nobody at the time could contradict him, so most people trusted what he said.

Also, a lot of images - not just satellite images - are partial and selective, which is why they can't be taken as objective truth - even if they're not given some sort of prescription or anchored context. Even a simple camera shot is not objective - the photographer has an angle in mind and forces the viewer to look at something in a particular way, a particular light.

Parks is urging the reversal of the anchoring process... I think the trouble with this approach for increasing awareness is that a lot more plays into the public's perception than simply anchoring. Sometimes people want to believe what they are told. It needs to be taken into account that a person's politics and education affects whether or not the person accepts what an authority is saying about the image. It's not always about if the fact is true or not - it often comes down to the politics a person values. I'm sure a lot of people realized that Powell's explanations of the satellite images were total crap - but they liked hearing a reason to invade Iraq and go after Saddam. While the strategy of deception played a major role in manipulating the public's thoughts, the anchoring of those satellite images was not the only dangerous tool used to get the public's support.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Culture Industry

As Drew said in his presentation this week, "The Culture Industry" is a highly critical article and takes a very pessimistic perspective on American culture. The authors undoubtedly have reason to be concerned about the effects of US capitalist style production on culture and society. Taking such a strict view on American culture is narrow-minded and makes them out to be elitist. Furthermore, when they describe that High Culture is the only worthy form of culture, they seem even more elitist and I think they are wrong. Nevertheless, the article is thought provoking and encourages readers who are immersed in US capitalism to critically examine the media that surrounds them.

There are a couple of concepts that really stand out in the article. The first is the idea that mass culture is identical, and the second is pseudo-individualization. I see how both of these apply to American culture, but it is not as extreme as the article describes. To me, most of the blockbuster movies are all the same: all the love stories, comedies, and horror movies that are released to the big screen to make big bucks tend to follow a certain predictable formula. Also, I think advertising tends to spin every product as if it is new and unique, when 30 other products just like it are already on the market. Ads that are targeted to particular demographics speak to consumers in a way that makes them believe they will be unique if they purchase the product. It is true that products continuously make false promises, but I think it is only true to a certain degree that consumers do not have a choice in what they buy.

Although I might not have a choice about what stores are in a mall, or what clothes are in a store - I do make an active choice when I purchase something. When I want to buy something particularly unique, I will shop at a small boutique, or an online store. Some people even shop at thrift stores to find vintage items. For some people style is art, so careful thought goes into everything they buy. Consumers can choose a style, make their own style, or adapt a style. In this way, I don't believe people are as mindless and lost as they're portrayed to be in the article. To say that people are no longer unique individuals is a little ridiculous - especially when there are many students like us who study the media and who are very aware of the effects of capitalist society on everyday life. Even this awareness alone makes us capable of making careful, active choices in our tastes.

Also, there are constantly artists who push the boundaries of mainstream media. Whether it`s music, fashion, film, or art - all of these domains involve creativity and thinking outside the box. If an artist really wants to stand out, he/she must do something different. Creativity, in my opinion, is something our culture values and recognizes. In this way, we are not all victims of pre-chosen products and ideas because we understand when we are following the mainstream and when we are not; we make active choices depending on our personal style and values.

While "The Culture Industry" proposes that capitalist culture is making it hard to distinguish between real life and the movies, Baudrillard proposes that we are now living in a hyperreality, where the medium is completely blurred... In Baudrillard's article, we are presented with the death of the real, or hyperreality.

Considering how the TV guide is saturated with reality shows, it is interesting to explore the concept of hyperreality. I don't understand it that well, but I don't think we are all living in a hyperreality yet. I think some people are - those people who are in reality shows, and those people who live in the media. TV personalities and celebrities, are constantly being watched. I'm sure surveillance is engrained in them - every move they make, every relationship decision can be documented and may or may not destroy their career. For them, there is no boundary between real life and the media (surveillance). For regular folk, I think there still is a boundary - however, it is blurring increasingly everyday. The more information we share online, the more the boundary blurs between our private and public lives. But, the death of the real is not here yet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Deleuze & Dividuals

Goodbye individuals, hello dividuals. This is the new language of control, according to Deleuze. Instead of seeing people as value, it's actually the data produced by individuals that becomes valuable in today's capitalist society. Capitalism today is for a higher-order production - it no longer follows the typical factory model. Instead, the new model of capitalism is wrapped up in marketing. Marketing has become the driving force of consumption today and the actual products have taken the backseat. And what makes marketing even more effective? The fact that an extensive amount of individuals' information is collected through data and available for analysis.

The article "Spinoza and Us" explains that the body is defined by relations of motion and rest and development... It's a little confusing, but essentially, this description reminds me that networked individuals are most valuable today - not static individuals. Facebook doesn't care about Erica Olmstead. Facebook cares about what items Erica Olmstead likes, who she's friends with, what links she posts on her wall, which public figures she follows, and so on. The value is continuously changing, Erica's network is expanding, and data miners are loving it.

The ideas presented in Haggerty and Ericson's article, "The Surveillant Assemblage" were easier to follow. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, the authors explore the abstraction of human bodies into data flows, or "data doubles". In this way, everything that we do (that can be traced through data) is reassembled into some meaningful way - clearly, for the purpose of making a profit. This idea is similar to what I mentioned above from Deleuze's articles, but the argument is more clear to me. In the surveillant assemblage, people are commodified; their data flows are closely monitored and used by companies for the purpose of making profit. Similar to how Arvidsson discussed branding of life and programmed individuals, the surveillant assemblage allows for the manufacturing of desires. The surveillant assemblage makes it easier to market specifically to individuals as so much of their information is available.

But, without the interactions between the human body and technology, there could be no data double, or cyborg, and our bodies wouldn't be nearly as valuable; our flows could not be traced, analyzed, commodified. The surveillant assemblage relies on machines to make and record observations, increasing fragmentation of the human body and our identities. The surveillant assemblage does not result from any single technology; rather, it is the culmination of technological capabilities that enhance the monitoring of information in all walks of life...

Here's a good question that the article brings up: should individuals receive compensation for the sale of personal information? Well it seems like they should since they're gaining so much value from individuals! Instead of compensation in dollars, however, companies are a bit wiser (more manipulative) in their method of compensation. Often times, companies offer an incentive to giving up your information. For example, if you fill out a survey you will get a coupon. Or, if you click on a certain link, you'll get the chance of winning something. Similar methods involve contests that involve participation, but only one "winner" is actually compensated. A less subtle way of compensation is the benefit of using a website, such as Facebook. Users agree to the terms, in exchange to be able to socialize and communicate online. Evidently, all of these examples do not involve direct payments; instead, users/consumers are offered something to make them feel like giving up their information is "worth it". This is an exquisite guise for the marketing companies...all they have to do is make people feel like its more convenient to give away their information than not.

Are we programmed individuals?

I think so much of daily life is overtaken by the desire to produce and the desire to be as efficient as possible. These values are so engrained in North American culture. We all have schedules and deadlines, and we freak out when things don't get done within a specific time frame. We're expected to go through institutions like school and university, so that we can add more value to our existence, so that we can get a job and work and contribute to the advancement of society, so that north america continues to be the biggest and the best.

Arvidsson's aritcle, "On the Prehistory of the Panoptic Sort" examines how surveillance is a key component of contemporary capitalist society, and how it has come to the point where "life itself comes to generate value"(458). As Arvidsson brings up the idea thatliving in a commercialized and surveilled society entails that individuals are producing data doubles, it is easy to understand how people`s lives can be commodified. When I think about my activities on social networks and websites and how so many companies generate value based off of the data I produce simply when I`m browsing and entertaining myself, I think it's unfair. But that is our reality. It is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to escape commodification as the technology we use on a daily basis is constantly monitoring us.

While Arvidsson claims that life in all its walks is constituted as productive labour, I disagree
that the commodification of individuals is currently this extreme - nevertheless, the trends are pointing us in that direction in the near future. It's a scary thought to refer to us as "programmed individuals" - but when I think about it, how do I know that my tastes and activities are my own? How do I know that I visited a website for my own interest, and not because of some advertisement I saw? How do I know that I purchased a new shirt because I really wanted it and not because I was told that I wanted it. Today, advertisements are incorporated into life to the point where they are ubiquitous and consumers no longer make choices on their own. I think the blurring of individuals' desires with companies' desires is becoming more common as a result of the increase in technologies we use on a daily basis and of course, the data mining and surveillance that occurs along with that. Companies don't need to guess at consumer wants and trends; instead, they can monitor data doubles, predict what the individuals will want, and advertise accordingly.

The more technology we use, the more information we give away as we produce data doubles for ourselves and allow increasing access to our information. Capitalism is the driving force, but what can we do to escape it? If we're not connected, if we're not online, our social lives and communication reaches are extremely limited. There is a price to pay, a consequence, if we opt out of participating.

In this week's seminar presentation, Alicia brought up the example of Odesk in relation to the way that new technologies can be used to increase the surveillance of an employee's behavior, thus increasing control of the employer. As discussed in class, Odesk is undoubtedly modelled after scientific management and capitalist values because through surveillance, Odesk promises to increase the efficiency of employees and eliminate slacking or multitasking. Interestingly, I can relate to Odesk because I work remotely for the Federal Government. I am not under constant sureillance, as an individual with Odesk would be, but the work that I produce is monitored to ensure that I am actually working. The fact that my productivity is monitored and measured, pressures me to be more efficient in my work than if I were working physically in my government office. When I am physically at the office, my presence matters more to my boss than my productivity. I find it interesting to contrast my experience with the same job in both physical and online environments, because it shows how the method of surveillance affects the amount of control in the relationship.This difference highlights how control is strengthened in data-based environments, where all of a person's actions are recorded and monitored.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Privacy... awareness is half of it

Judith Thomson`s discussion of privacy puts all of our worries into a practical perspective. If you’re having a conversation in your house and you don’t want outsiders to hear it, then you should have your windows closed and you should take the measures that you can to ensure that nobody can hear you. If you leave your door and windows open then you can’t keep people from overhearing – you are accountable for your own privacy. It’s the same when using the web. Some people are highly cautious about their privacy when surfing the web. Some even go to lengths to use IP scramblers so they can surf the web anonymously.

In my opinion, the concept of privacy is unique to every individual. We each see and value privacy differently; our vision of privacy is shaped by our knowledge of its implications and our personal values. And as Thomson repeats in her article, the right to privacy is also overlapping with other rights. It’s clear that the concept of privacy is very difficult to define. But if we can’t define it, how can we protect it?

I understand that companies keep track of my actions on shopping websites and use that information in data mining. In this way, I know I am accountable for my actions online, just as I am accountable for my actions in physical public space – and there`s nothing private about either one. When I’m meandering through a store, I can’t keep the clerks from watching me and taking note of my interests. Likewise, when I’m shopping online, I know that something is keeping track of the items I’ve viewed. This is something I have to accept if I want to shop online. Not everyone sees it this way and many people are shocked to find that just because they are surfing the internet alone in a room, doesn`t mean they have complete privacy.

It is hard for average web users to grasp the concept that their actions online do not go unseen simply because there is no physical body watching them. Many people assume that because they use their computers in the privacy of their home, they are private in what they do online. Windows are automatically open when one starts using the Internet – individuals have to go to the length of shutting the windows before they want to do something privately. The problem when it comes to protecting privacy online is that is in increasingly taking more technical skills to ensure one’s privacy. Very few people have the technical skills (and the awareness of the tracking capabilities of most websites) to make sure that they are protected if they want to be. Professional techy people are hired for web companies to write codes that track IPs, collect data, implant cookies, etc. while the majority of internet users barely understand what information they are giving away freely and don’t know where to begin to protect themselves online. This is the difference between Thomson’s practical analyses and privacy online. It’s not as simple as shutting a window. It’s almost impossible to ensure that we have constructed for ourselves impenetrable walls. To protect privacy online, one must take an extra length of effort: one must have the awareness of privacy`s importance, plus technical skills and time to go about protecting oneself. Unfortunately, many of us don`t have the extra time, and many others just can`t be bothered.

Perhaps if there was greater awareness of the serious implications of protecting identity and privacy online, more people would take the extra length of effort.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Eye of Power and “Sousveillance”

After reading the interview with Barou, Foucault, and Perrot, in addition to the piece on “Sousveillance” it is clear that in the 21st century there exist diverse methods and effects of surveillance. At one point in the interview, Foucault mentions that the importance of Bentham’s concept of the gaze is archaic by today’s standards. No longer can something like Bentham’s panopticon model be thought of as an ultimate solution to easily control the behaviour of a large number of people. Today we are constantly using a variety of technological devices, which use a variety of methods of tracking us and mining our information. The idea that big brother is watching – that we are all under one vast overseeing gaze – is hard to reinforce because there are an increasing number of methods of surveillance today. Furthermore, it is becoming less and less obvious to individuals that they are under surveillance as the methods used for tracking people and information are disguised in the form of a necessity, a tool, or an entertaining activity.

Steve Mann’s experiments go a few steps father than Bentham’s concept. The article discusses some of Mann’s surveillance experiments and shows how our attitudes and concerns can change about being watched – but it depends on where we believe the gaze originates. “Sousveillance” is an interesting term in the article; it refers to the use of panoptic technology to monitor authority figures and help individuals take control of how they are being monitored. Indeed, by turning the gaze on those who are used to being the “watchers” Mann was able to cause a minor breakage in the power relationship, empowering the individual as opposed to the authority. But we’re not allowed to just go around everywhere with a camera attached to our body. It is tricky to implement Mann’s theory in real world settings. So what can we do?

I believe the website is an example of one way in which we can start to shift the gaze around. The site offers org charts of the major US companies, listing the names of their directors and illustrating how much power a few companies and directors actually have over the economy. I love the concept of this site. Having information about major companies, being knowledgeable about a conglomerate’s assets, etc. provides an everyday person with power as a consumer. Keeping an eye out on the power relations between companies is definitely an example of sousveillance because it undermines the branding of major corporations that disguise themselves with a variety of brand names. Such knowledge means that the individual can’t as easily be manipulated by companies who purport to have specific values when really their values are the same as their relatives. The information on can enable a person to make more informed consumer decisions, rather than falling victim to corporate manipulation and advertising – the corporate gaze.

While all this talk of the gaze and power relations can be a bit scary, what’s even worse in my opinion is the fact that sometimes the gaze is invisible. As I mentioned earlier, new fun gadgets and convenient technologies (debit cards, visas), make it less obvious to individuals that they are being tracked. When the gaze becomes invisible, or when we don’t know where it’s coming from but we know we’re under watch – that’s when I would be most concerned. I thought about the Google Street View car example that we discussed in lecture.... If the Google car was driving around my neighbourhood with a big camera taking pictures, yes it would feel a bit invasive, but at least I would have a good idea as to why it is in my neighbourhood. If a car with no name on it was driving around taking pictures – I would be much more worried. I wouldn’t know why it was taking pictures, or where the pictures might end up. And I wouldn’t really be able to practice sousveillance because how would I know what authority to keep watch on?

To sum it up, I agree that Bentham’s concept is archaic as new technologies allow surveillance of individuals in a greater variety of ways than simply one gaze. I also like the concept of sousveillance to undermine the power of authorities. But my problem is that as the technologies become more advanced, they become more invisible – and so does surveillance. As the example with the nameless car shows, it becomes more difficult for us to know when we are being watched, to pin down the authority, to know why we are being watched, what type of data is being gathered, and why. Invisibility of the gaze makes it very hard for us to be aware that we should even be practicing sousveillance.